Echoes of the legendary “We choose to go to the Moon,” quote attributed to US President John F. Kennedy, rekindle memories of a defining era in science, whose apex was mankind landing on the moon for the first time.
Now, a momentous breakthrough is on the horizon.
Entrepreneur and innovator, the ever super-ambitious Elon Musk, pictured in his mind the concept of hyperloop technology; despite humankind's nearsightedness not allowing us a view beyond roads, water, rail and air for modes of transportation.
Hyperloop is a means of passenger and cargo conveyance where, a train-like vehicle, called a capsule, that bears much likeness to an airliner fuselage with its wings and tail cut off; journeys through a tube containing a special environment, either above or below the ground.
Figure to yourself if you may, a straw, along with a toothpick on its one open end, and your mouth on the other. Sip an imaginary soft drink, applying as much suction power as the lungs would permit.
The pick pierces through air at such a high speed, that it hardly makes any contact with the walls of the straw. It floats on air, as if by magic.
Expansion of the lungs creates low pressure, partial vacuum region; and the now stronger atmospheric pressure thrusts air and the toothpick towards the unoccupied space.
As with toothpick and straw, so with capsule and tube.
These are plain, common sense laws of science, such as you and I, and all of us, can understand and apply, without having passed years in the study of engineering.
Capsules travel at transonic speeds: speeds bordering that of sound. This necessitates an effective air gap be maintained between the tube and itself; to ensure a stable airflow, and to keep clear of possible choking.
At the nose of the capsule is a compressor fan, comparable to that employed in high-altitude jet engines, albeit the former being powered by electric motors. It constantly transfers relatively-high pressure air from the frontal side to the rear side and sides of the capsule.
Resultantly, air resistance is lessened, propulsion stepped up, and an air cushion that holds the capsule afloat in the tube is established.
Starting velocity is provided by an external linear electric motor. This induction motor produces a linear force and motion along its length, and thereafter, owing to the near-vacuum condition inside the tube, the capsule glides along by itself, with a steady re-boosting only needed every seventy miles or so.
In preference to wheels, the capsule has metal skis that levitate on the pressurised, thin air film pumped through small holes in the skis; for the purpose of diminishing frictional losses and achieving better dynamic stability at very high speeds.
Still, deployable wheels similar to aircraft landing gear may be employed: they enable simple movement at low speeds in a better way and outdo skis as a safety component in the case that an emergency arises.
Above-ground hyperloop tubes are greatly preferable to below-ground tunnels, as solar panels installed at the tube's top generate energy, far in excess of the system's specification.
The additional energy is stored in battery packs that power the onboard compressor fan, motor and other capsule systems at night or during 'periods of extended cloudy weather' as Musk said.
Also, tubes are designed to rest on roughly, six-metre-high pillar supports, spaced just about thirty metres apart; depending on terrain.
In structuring the hyperloop tube, strong, lightweight, uniform-thickness steel; able to carry the capsule's weight, able to withstand the pressure differential across the wall, and able to contend with bending and buckling between the pillars, is used.
Hyperloop stations, where passengers board and disembark at various locations along the tube's length, may possibly provide entryways for air leakage into the tube: but actively running vacuum pumps, situated at different calculated points along the tube's length, evacuate the tube to the desired low pressure; hence limiting roughness between air and the capsule to a minimum.
This technology might still be in its development stage, and timid minds may well consider it an established province for the elite in science: but nothing could be further from the truth, as evidenced by the open-source approach taken up by the stewards of this megaproject; so that any willing man, woman or child can plainly share their very much welcome propositions and recommendations to [email protected] or [email protected]
Our collective comprehension is sure to shush the cynical voices that point to the costliness of such an undertaking: and with the epic prospects of safely traversing a thousand kilometres in under an hour, smashing the barriers of distance and time in the process, while utilising green energy, taking up less space, producing little noise - and doing all these and getting it perfect - then we must be lion-hearted in the belief that; as cars, trains, ships and airplanes have become factors in our lives, then so too shall hyperloop.
The writer is a mechanical engineering student, University of Nairobi